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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2020 Evan Morris & Kathy Wollard. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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April 2009 Issue


Oh good, it’s still April, so I’m not really late.

First of all, thanks to all the wonderful readers who either subscribed or just hit that little “Donate” button (over there on the left) last month.  Your contributions have been an enormous help.  Special thanks of the highest order to Susan in California, whose extraordinary generosity is deeply appreciated.

Elsewhere in the news, I have disabled the text-to-speech feature (The Word Detective Read Aloud by a Very Stupid Robot) because it was annoying everybody and didn’t really work.  Incidentally, speaking as a former longtime member of the Authors Guild, I think their objection to the speech feature on the new Kindle was seriously idiotic. Trust me, readers can tell the difference between a book read aloud by the author (or an actor) and a book squawked out by a toaster.  And don’t get me started on the Guild  and their end run around US copyright law with Google.  Don’t be evil?  Ha.  As a corporate motto, it’s brilliant.  Gives you a five-mile head start on all the schlubs who believe you.

Onward.  I believe I may have mentioned at various points that I have a bit of a thing about computer keyboards.  For many years I’ve been devoted to the IBM Model M “clicky” buckling spring keyboard that came with a used IBM PS-2 computer I bought back in 1992.  Typing on one of these boards is like using a good electric typewriter, which makes sense since IBM engineers were trying to duplicate the feel of the legendary IBM modelmsmallSelectric typewriters.  There is absolutely no comparison between typing on a Model M and poking away at the kind of cheap, mushy “membrane” boards that come with computers today.  I don’t touch-type, but people who do say that when using the Model M their typing rate and accuracy increase dramatically.  The feel of the keys is deliciously, smoothly mechanical in the way that a fine camera is — the Model M is the keyboard equivalent of the original Nikon F, or perhaps even an M-Series Leica (but at a tiny fraction of a Leica’s cost).  If you are familiar with vintage shortwave radios (of course you are!), the Model M is the Yaesu FRG-7 of keyboards.

Still, my trusty Model M board dated back to the 1980s, and even though Model Ms are nearly indestructible, it bothered me to know that someday, possibly before the Sun burned out, I was going to need another keyboard. So it was nice to discover that a small company called Unicomp, in Kentucky, had bought the patents, dies and spare parts for making Model M boards from Lexmark, which had been spun off by IBM itself many years earlier. NPR recently did a nice feature on Unicomp, which can be heard here.

Below is a picture of Inky with the Customizer 101 I bought from Unicomp about five years ago.  It’s identical to an IBM Model M, although IBM never made one in that color scheme.  You’ll notice that it lacks the “Windows” keys found on cheapo “modern” plastic keyboards.  That’s a good thing.  If you really use those keys, it’s easy to remap them to, say, the right Alt key, which no human being has ever used.


Anyway, since that time, I’ve learned a lot about keyboards, and acquired a few more (most of which cost less than $10, making a keyboard fixation a very cheap hobby). At one point last year I stumbled across a site called which, despite its name, is actually full of very nice people who happen to be obsessed with mechanical keyboards.  If you’ve ever hankered for a rousing debate over the merits of black Alps switches versus the blue Cherry variety, Geekhack is your new home.

Continue reading this post » » »

Bulls and bears

Now Playing:  Dim Tim and the Vortex of Doom.

Dear Word Detective:  We are being swamped daily with dire news from the financial markets of the world.  Stock markets fall into bottomless pits, then we get “dead cat bounces.”  I can work that one out. But we also get “bull” markets and “bear” markets.  “Bull” seems reasonable, someone charging about buying everything they can lay their hands on.  But “bear”?  What is so shy and retiring about a bear that makes them sell everything in sight?  I think, given the choice, I’d rather be in a field with a bull than a grizzly!  Come to think of it, where does “grizzly” come from?  There’s me getting my two questions in one. — David, Ripon, England.

Hmm.  That seems more like four or five questions, but I’ve never been good with figures, which is how we got in this mess to start with.  Yes, folks, it’s all my fault.  I was in the supermarket a few months ago and saw one of those “Buy two, get one free with double gas rewards and a Popsicle” specials on cat food.  But, over the vigorous protests of the cashier, I only bought one bag, a reckless act which apparently tipped a very delicate balance somewhere in Zurich and sent the world economy plunging into Lake Fuhgeddaboudit.  Sorry about that.

Onward.  Most people who pay any attention at all to the stock markets know that it’s common to hear the markets on a given day described as either “bullish” (marked by rising stock prices) or “bearish” (showing a tendency toward falling prices).  “Bullish” and “bearish” are also used as shorthand for “optimistic” and “pessimistic,” respectively.  The slogan of Merrill-Lynch, for example, has for many years been “Merrill-Lynch is bullish on America” (although how that fits with the recent collapse of the firm and its sale to Bank of America remains to be seen).

“Bear” as applied to an investor or stock trader dates back to the early 18th century, and comes from the adage “Don’t sell the bearskin before you’ve shot the bear.”  This is essentially what market “bears” do, selling stock they do not own for delivery at a future date, betting that by then the price will have dropped, giving them a profit on the trade.  This is also known as “short selling,” because the seller is “short” the actual shares at the time of sale.  Such “bearish” sellers were actually known on the 18th century London stock exchange as “bearskin jobbers,” later shortened to simply “bears.”

Bulls do the opposite, buying shares now on the hope that the price will rise.  Various theories have been offered as to why “bull” was picked as the opposite of “bear.”  Both bull-baiting and bear-baiting were popular “sports” at the time, making the animals convenient symbols.  It’s also true that real bears tend to be cagier and more cautious than bulls, who tend to charge first and think later, if at all.  And, of course, the fact that the phrase “bulls and bears” is alliterative certainly doesn’t hurt.

As for “grizzly” bears, they take their name from the gray or “grizzled” (from the Old French “gris”) tips on their fur.  They are also known as “silvertip” bears.


Incidentally, if you spend your life “scrapbooking,” what’s in the scrapbook?

Dear Word Detective:  A while back I was in a fabric store and I entered a section where the buttons, zippers and other trimmings were located.  The section is named “Notions” and is apparently so named in other fabric stores.  I understand that “notion” means sundries.  But it also means “a personal inclination,” among other definitions.  What is the connection between the two words, if any? — Al.

Fabric stores?  Fabric stores give me the wimwams.  Around here we have cavernous warehouse-like stores with cutesy names like “Fabrics ‘n Stuff” that sell not only fabric and sewing supplies, but also every conceivable variation on things like “101 easy patterns for pseudo-rustic ornamental pillows to give your neighbor’s nephew on graduation from his twelve-step program.”  Is there some secret race of immortal and easily-amused creatures living among us who plan to spend the next ten thousand years actually sewing this stuff?  And why are they so fond of scarecrows?

“Notion” is an interesting word, one of those English words that has been around long enough to acquire a wide variety of meanings, some of which seem quite unconnected to its other definitions.  The root of “notion” is the Latin word “notio,” based on “noscere,” meaning “to know” (which also gave us our English word “know”).  That Latin word “notio” was actually coined by the great Roman statesman and orator Cicero, who used it to translate the Greek “ennoia” (“conception, idea”) into Latin.

Our English “notion” first appeared in the late 14th century meaning “idea or concept” in a philosophical sense, but by the early 17th century “notion” was being used in our modern sense to mean “an idea, belief or view held by a person or group” (“It is not a new notion … that the history of the world is divided into certain great periods,” 1857).

Beginning in the 15th century, however, “notion” was also used to mean “an inclination toward, fancy for, or desire to do something” (“After being here for a week, I took a notion to leave, and accordingly did so,” 1891), a sense that sometimes was synonymous with “whim” or “strange impulse” (“She could not understand why they had got this silly notion of wearing coats and trousers in bed when nightshirts were so much easier to iron,” 1957).  Today “notion” is often used in a patronizing tone to mean “silly idea.”

This association of “notion” with one’s personal ideas or whims led to “notion” being used to mean “bright idea” or “clever invention,” which in turn led to the word “notions” being used in late 18th century America to mean “cheap, useful articles” sold in shops.  By the 19th century, “notions” in this sense had narrowed to items having to do with sewing, etc.

By the way, “sundries,” meaning “miscellaneous articles or small items” comes from the adjective “sundry” (“assorted, miscellaneous”), which is derived from the Old English “syndrig,” which is also related to our modern word “sunder” meaning “to separate.”